At the bottom of the hill near to Magdalene Bridge stands The Pickerel. This is one of a clutch of ex-Watney pubs which, a couple of years ago, passed into the ownership of what is now Scottish Courage. It is also, along with The Green Dragon in Chesterton, a claimant to be the oldest pub, or pub site, in the city. What would once have been a warren of tiny rooms has been much altered over the years, but enough walls remain to create four distinct drinking areas.
Lunchtime meals and snacks are very reasonably priced for the city centre. The menu does not however include any pickerels. One is portrayed on the inn sign, if you are not sure.
If you are not sure where you stand, or indeed which way round to stand, carry on up the hill and turn left at the lights and along a bit for a spot of introspection. As you go practice the articulation of Flowers.
The Town and Gown was formerly The Rose and Crown. It is sub-let to a Whitbread-biased independent pub chain (Inn Business) and not surprisingly sells mainly Whitbread beers. It has a certain charm but in recent years has not realised its potential. The freehold is held by the City Council and it will be interesting to see what happens in a year or so when Whitbread's lease runs out.
Just round the corner in Pound Hill stands The Cow and Calf. This was in a similar position to The Town and Gown a few years ago when the lease was secured by the then tenant, Les Shiret. As a result, Les now runs one of only two true freehouses in Cambridge, with no ties to any brewer or restrictions on the ales he can obtain. Les prefers to get his beer direct from breweries rather than through agencies and therefore the selection usually comes from among those companies with whom he regularly does business - Nethergate, Mauldons, Elgoods, Iceni, Charles Wells, Sam Smiths and Scottish Courage. Five or six ales are generally on tap and their quality has gained the pub a regular listing in the Good Beer Guide.
The Cow and Calf comprises a homely front bar room with a fine open fire and a larger back room where the pool table is situated. It has no pretensions to being an architectural gem, depending rather for its appeal on good ale and good atmosphere, personified by the happy countenances of the regulars. For connoisseurs of pub cats, a couple of splendid specimens can often be found.
A short step back to Castle Hill finds The County Arms, which for the last five years has been run by Trevor Holmes on behalf of the small Rose Inns chain. This is one of the pubs bought a few years ago by Everards from Whitbread (see Company Profile No. 4). Several years before that, The County had been comprehensively refurbished with the multi-room layout giving way to a largely open-plan L-shaped format, though the back room remains effectively separate.
The regular real ales are Everards Beacon and Tiger plus Adnams Bitter and there is often a guest beer, recently Exmoor Stag. It is good to see that the sparklers have been removed from the swan-necks. Food is important here, with a wide range of reasonably priced meals and snacks available every day 12-2 and 6-9. The menu promises some unusual and exciting dishes.
The lunchtime food has developed an enviable reputation. A large selection of main dishes priced between £3.50 and 4.50 is complemented by numerous snack/butty options. Further development is available in the shape of evening food and the opening of the upstairs bar. Watch this space.
Proceed up the hill, past that haunt of faceless bureaucrats, Shire Hall. to find The Sir Isaac Newton. Once a compact two-bar local, the Isaac was completely rebuilt and much extended several years ago. The main bar area ended up as a cavernous barn but, to their credit, Greene King acknowledged this design gaffe and subsequently inserted a mezzanine floor. This improved matters no end. There is an interesting sculpture on the external wall featuring Newton's Apple.
Licnsee for the last two and a half years has been John Annetts who has things well under control. Real ales are Greene King IPA, Abbot and the seasonal beer, currently Royal Raven. The Abbot, following its recent recipe tweak, is particularly recommended. This is another Castle Hill pub with an excellent reputation for food, served 12-2 and 6-8 every session except Sunday evening.
A check through the archives reveals that since the last time anything was written about the pubs in the Castle Hill area in Nov. '83, every pub has changed ownership except The Isaac, which itself is unrecognisable from what it was then. One pub in the area has closed altogether - The Merton Arms in Northampton St. Back in '83 the pubs sold 17 different real ales between them. Now the total is near 30. This area is certainly a candidate in considering Cambridge's premier real ale supping scene.